There is a joke about a man who was in financial difficulty who went to a church to pray that he would win the lottery. A week went by, and with no success he decided to try his luck in a synagogue. Once again he prayed to win the lottery, a week went by, and with no success he decided to try his luck in a mosque. This time as well as listing all of his financial difficulties for which he needed the money, he even said he would give some to charity if he won. As he went outside, the clouds opened, and a voice boomed out: “You’ve got to buy a lottery ticket.”
It’s all very well to pray to win the lottery, but as sincere as the prayers might be and as much as you might be committed to use the money for good causes, without buying a ticket the prayers are unlikely to be answered. Praying is of course important, but for those prayers to work it often helps to accompany the words said to God with actions.
As Jacob prepares for his reunion with Esau in this week’s Torah portion he unsurprisingly recites a prayer to God. At the beginning of the prayer, much like we do today in the Amidah, Jacob remembers those who went before, as he prays to ‘God of my father Abraham, and God of my father Isaac’ (Genesis 32:10). He then reminds God that he is returning as he was instructed, and claims that he is unworthy. At the core of the prayer is the request: ‘Save me, I beseech you, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau’ (Genesis 32:12).
While Jacob prays and makes a compelling case for why God should protect him from his brother Esau. On either side of the prayer he demonstrates the importance of supplementing his words with action. Before reciting his prayer, we read that Jacob ‘sent messengers before him to Esau’ (Genesis 32:4) and that he also ‘divided the people who were with him, and the flocks’ (Genesis 32:8). These actions before the prayer are coupled by the fact that afterwards he sent Esau a gift of goats, ewes, rams, camels, cows, bulls, female asses and foals (Genesis 32:15-16).
As Jacob reveals in the words of his prayer, God has promised him a future, which means that at least some of his descendants must survive beyond the reunion with Esau. And yet he does not solely rely on his words. He combines his prayer with action. While the prayer on its own might have worked, Jacob’s behavior demonstrates that prayer is never enough. We can go to the synagogue, we can recite our prayers with sincerity, but if we just wait for God to fulfill our requests, without any accompanying action, we are unlikely to be rewarded.
Jacob reminds us that we are shutafim – partners with God. We need to combine our prayers with action. We can keep praying to win the lottery, but if we never buy a ticket, it is unlikely that God is going to answer our prayers. We should keep praying, but we should also make sure to do our part to turn our words into reality.
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